First Vedic Temple in the Pacific Northwest of America
“Temple of Brahman, the Universal Spirit”
At “Sri Ramakrishna Ashrama,” the Vedanta Retreat, Scappoose, OR
The Retreat of the Vedanta Society of Portland
A saga of indomitable will
(Work in progress)
During an unseasonable spell of heat, devotees, Swami Devatmananda, Swami in Charge of the Portland Vedanta Society, and three visiting Swamis motored some 20 miles from downtown Portland, OR to the high hills above the small town of Scappoose, OR. There, in the cooler heights, Swamis Ashokananda (San Francisco, CA), Viswananda (Chicago, IL), and Vividishananda (Seattle, WA) convened to lay the foundation stone of the future Vedic Temple at the Retreat. Referred to as the “Temple of Brahman, the Universal Spirit” in the 1943 Portland Vedanta Society Board minutes, it was to become the site of the first Vedic Temple in the Pacific Northwest United States. A Blue Atlas Cedar was also planted facing the future site of the Temple. This day, Saturday, October 9, 1943, became the bridge between a piece of land, recently logged, and the completed Temple with its trails through towering trees and outdoor shrines.
It is hard to imagine how the fledgling Vedanta Society of Portland, OR could acquire 120 acres of property during the Great Depression. In January of 1930, the governing Board of Trustees struggled to meet even basic expenses. Until Swami Devatmananda arrived to take charge on February 11, 1932, devotees held regular meetings in private homes and at the Portland Public Library.
By April 20, 1934, the first permanent home for the Portland Vedanta Society (1206 NW 25th Ave, Portland, OR) was purchased. Money was raised by renting rooms to devotees, and by the activities of the Ways and Means Committee. Many small fundraising, and social events such as silver teas of the Women’s League, annual Christmas Bazaar, May basket parties, and little musicals were attended by members and close friends.
This same Ways and Means Committee met on March 1, 1935, to assert, “all the members present are in favor of plans for a proposed retreat, according to the ideas of Swami Devatmananda.” The Board of Trustees met on March 17, 1935, in a special meeting to discuss “intensifying the Society’s activities toward the procuring of a suitable site for an Ashram.” By February 6, 1936, the Board of Trustees reported that 120 acres of logged-off land were under consideration for a retreat site.
Somehow funds were raised for the purchase. The original offer from the Vedanta Society was $800. The owner, Mr. S.H. Weber, declined this amount, but agreed to a final price of $1,000, or $8.33 per acre of land. On February 27, 1936, to commemorate the 100th birth anniversary of Sri Ramakrishna, the land was purchased on a down payment of $300 to Mr. Weber. The remaining balance of $700 was payable as $10 per month to include the interest charge of 6% per year. The records are silent on how the exact down payment, was raised. While much of the valuable old-growth trees had already been logged, it is possible that additional logging was done to help raise money. Members likely contributed money according to their ability. The Ways and Means Committee continued to raise modest amounts. There were a few wealthy devotees, including Mrs. Carrie (“Lalita”) Mead Wyckoff of Pasadena, CA, Dr. Hal Child, and Mr. Ralph Thom, who may have quietly donated for the down payment. Monthly treasurer’s reports, which could answer this mystery have not been found in the Board minutes of the time.
According to an unnamed Board member, “When this property was first acquired, this hill was named Temple Hill by us, as the ideal location for a Temple. Swami Devatmananda envisioned a Temple being erected there-though he said ‘It may never happen in our time.’” But through Grace it did; despite taking another eighteen years to come to fruition.
Originally there was a rustic log cabin with a kitchen and living room on the southernmost quadrant of the property. Also, two small outbuildings, of which the shed was repurposed as a meditation hall. According to Swami Devatmananda’s report of Ashrama activities:
“Soon after the purchase of the Ashrama property was completed, Feb. 25th, 1936, the work of planning and improving it was taken up by Mr. Andrew Anderson [one of the earliest members of the Vedanta Society of Portland who had been present at Swami Vivekanananda’s Parliament of Religion address], Mrs. Anderson, Mr. A.E. Pryke and Mr. William Cooper. Mr. Ralph Thom contributed substantial help with valuable suggestions. The work however did not proceed as fast as anticipated on account of heavy rainfall and damaged roads. As we had only a small fund at our disposal for improvements, it was decided that the amount would be spent on immediate necessities alone, namely the water facilities, and a little more comfortable arrangements for the accommodation of our group if they wanted to stay overnight. After a thorough investigation, it was decided to install a hydraulic ram to get water from the creek….As to building construction, there were several suggestions. One was to build a new addition to the present cottage [log cabin]. It was however found out that new construction would cost us much more than we could afford to spend. Secondly, it was pointed out that a new building would hardly match the old one. ….They finally came to the conclusion that with old lumber the old shed to the northeast of the cottage [cabin] could be transformed into a decently large hall. Swami Devatmananda felt that while those friends were willing to give their time and labor, it was certainly worthwhile to find the material for them to work with. Thus two truckloads of old lumber, pipes, septic tank, toilet, washbasin, etc., were purchased and sent up and construction was started. Some members came forward with their offerings and soon the cottage [cabin] was well furnished with wood-stove, cooking utensils, dishes, beds, mattresses, chairs, blankets, garden tools, etc. The work of improvements was given further zest and accelerated speed with the decision of holding the dedication ceremony during the visit of Swami Akhilananda. Though the construction was still incomplete, yet through the infinite Grace of God, the well-wishes of members and friends, the dedication ceremony was made possible to be held with due pomp and success.”
July 26, 1936, marked the formal dedication ceremony for the property. Swami Akhilananda, Head of the Vedanta Society of Providence, RI performed the ceremony. There were forty attendees. The dedication was held out in the open on a little knoll beside the road leading to the old cottage. As can be seen in the afternoon group photo there was a scattering of fir trees all about 20-25 years of age. Five principles were announced governing the founding of the Retreat:
This Retreat will be called “Sri Ramakrishna Ashrama,” and is dedicated to the serene memory of Sri Ramakrishna, on the occasion of His one hundredth birth anniversary, which is now being celebrated all over the world.
For all intents and purposes, this Ashrama will represent the spirit of this great Saint of modern times. It is the spirit of tolerance, love, brotherhood, harmony of religions, and above all, God-realization.
This Ashrama will be maintained for the use of the members of the Vedanta Society and also such non-members who adhere to broad universal spiritual principles and want to mould their lives accordingly.
In the journey of life, loving all and hating none, barring all forms of narrow sectarianism and bigotry, irrespective of creed and color, all are welcome to meet in common fellowship and culture the Spiritual Amity, under our Heavenly Father, Divine Mother, Friend, and Guide.
Its internal management will be under the direct leadership of the Swami in charge, and its temporal affairs will be looked after by the Board of Trustees of the Vedanta Society of Portland, Oregon.
Swami Devatmananda, during his report to the August 3rd, 1936 Board Meeting remarked: “There is an immediate problem we have to attend to, which is concerning the water rights. Because it was first maintained that it was not necessary to make an application for water rights for domestic purposes only, all the money was spent on other construction works. Now to avoid any future complications, legal and otherwise it has been decided upon that the Society secure necessary water- rights. That will cost the Society $14.50-$5.00 for application, $5.00 for water used for domestic purposes, and $4.50 for irrigating 1-30 acres of land. Of course, if we don’t want to preserve the right of irrigation, we will save $4.50 for the present. The Society has been informed through Mr. Ralph Thom, by an official of the Tax department that it will have to pay a certain amount of tax on a certain area of the property. So far the Society has not been officially notified as to the details.”
At the next Board meeting of September 3rd, 1936, “A motion was made and carried that the Society make an application for water-rights at the Ashrama, funds to be taken from the Ashrama Fund.” This will not be the last time that the Retreat will incur additional, unplanned costs!
At the July 13th, 1937 Board Meeting, Swami Devatmananda announced the anticipated arrival of two Swamis, Ganeshwarananda (Chicago, IL) and Vividishananda (from Denver, CO) on July 29th. These visitors were taken to the Scappoose property for a picnic with sixty-one devotees in attendance. As was Swami Devatmananda’s custom, a tree was planted at the Ashrama in memory of the first visit of any visiting Swami. For Swami Ganeshwarananda, an oak tree was planted at a spot where Swami Devatmananda liked to meditate, a long distance from the cabin, beyond Temple Hill, overlooking a ravine.
On March 3, 1938 “ the Special Committee of the Board reported the paying off of the mortgage on the Retreat as authorized by the Board at the last meeting…..A note of $300 was given to Mrs.[Lotta] Rader and a note of $56 to Ruth Henderson.” This represents loans offered by these devotees to clear the debt of the Scappoose Retreat. From where did the remaining $104 needed to clear the mortgage to appear? The records are silent. It is uncertain whether devotees made outright gifts or Swami Devatmananda allocated money from the General Fund. It is almost four and a half years later that a gift of $500 was made to the Retreat fund to fully clear the Retreat mortgage.
It is worth examining the financial principles used by Swami Devatmananda. Swami had ceased the common practice of passing an after-service collection plate in the mid-nineteen thirties. When funds were needed for new or ongoing projects, “only members and interested people were to be approached with the option of #1-Outright gift. #2- Occasional gifts. #3-Loans without interest. #4-Loans with interest.” Without traditional bank loans as an option, devotees and friends provided the bulk of money utilized to build the material resources of the young Society.
“At an impressive ceremony on July 5, 1938, the beautiful oak tree at the Retreat was dedicated to the memory of the late Swami Ganeshwarananda of Chicago. A picnic lunch followed with about 40 being present.” A photo shows Swami Devatmananda seated at a five-sided bench of his construction, built to protect the young tree. The tree is a mature oak now growing beside the current Holy Mother Shrine. This was the first of many trees either dedicated by or to the memory of second-generation Swamis of the Ramakrishna Order. It is also the first time the annual 4th of July celebration was held at the Retreat rather than a city park in Portland.
In the summer of 1938 a small cabin, the current Shanti Kutir was built to be the retreat residence of Swami Devatmananda. “The cost being met by voluntary contributions.” Swami Prabhavananda, visiting from Hollywood, CA, and Swami Devatmananda met with thirty-seven devotees in August of 1938 for a Sunday morning lecture at the Ashrama.
Swami Satprakashananda, arrived from Washington, DC on September 27, 1938, to assist with the Divine Mother’s worship. Before he left on October 7th he visited the Retreat on Wednesday, October 5th to plant a Cedar Deodar tree on Temple Hill.
A close friend of Swami Vivekananda, Miss Josephine McLeod, paid an afternoon visit to the “Ashrama” in September 1939. Her journey up to the Retreat would have been easier since the Works Progress Association (WPA) finished improvements and the county spread rocks on the rural road ascending from the highway.
Dedication of the new Meditation Hall at the Sri Ramakrishna Ashrama was performed on Sunday, March 10, 1940. Swami Vijayananda, newly arrived in Portland from South America, was present to celebrate this event.
The foundation and cornerstone for a ladies retreat building, the present Sarada Cottage, was laid on Easter morning of 1941. This two-story cottage was built with a bequest from the Society’s treasurer, Theresa Olson, in honor of her late mother Mary Olson. Swami Vividishananda was there to assist with the groundbreaking, along with members and friends there for the sunrise service and picnic lunch. When Swami Vividishananda returned to Portland, he and Swami Devatmananda dedicated the new cottage on Sunday morning July 6, 1941, after a “beautiful and impressive worship to the Master and Divine Mother.”
“A friend of Swami Devatmananda has donated the sum of $500.00 to the Retreat fund, so now the Retreat Mortgage is paid in full.” The Board “gratefully accepted the gift,” October 9, 1941.” Despite the cottage “is not quite completed, it is now being used.”
Swamis Prabhavananda (Hollywood), and Nikhilananda (New York) both gave a Sunday morning address at the Retreat in June and July 1942 respectively. Having a new ladies’ cottage, and a newly remodeled Meditation Hall, gave more amenities for those who traveled up to the Sri Ramakrishna Ashrama for the rustic services.
For at least fifty years the Ashrama has been used by groups of devotees for extended spiritual activities. Commonly, it was the site of Easter Sunrise Services, for at the time there was a clear view over the logged land to the east for the sunrise over Mt. Hood. These services were held at the site of the current Christian Shrine. On April 5, 1942, “Easter Sunrise Service was held at the Retreat followed by breakfast. Later, the morning service was held at the Meditation Hall at the Retreat, after which a luncheon was served.”
Perhaps the time when the Retreat was the least utilized was during the years of the Second World War. The October 10th, 1943 laying of the foundation stone with the visiting Swamis and devotees was an important exception to the diminution of visitors to the Retreat.
The Board minutes and the Annual Reports from 1944 and 1945 share: “During the last year, the work at the Retreat has been hampered on account of a shortage of manpower and transportation difficulties. However occasional visits have ensured the maintenance of the Retreat, for which we are grateful to those friends whose generosity made such visits possible.” The “generosity” may be a reference to a donation of scarce gasoline rationing coupons. “….Due to the shortage of gas, it has not been possible to visit the Retreat as often as usual, but several improvements have been made there, the most important of which is the grading and graveling of more than a half a mile of road within the Retreat grounds.”
Swami Devatmananda was desirous of acquiring a copy of the famous bronze bust of Swami Vivekananda by the noted sculptress, Malvina Hoffman. This acquisition was to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the Vedanta Society of Portland. The order was placed in July 1951 with delivery promised before October 7th when the worship of Divine Mother was anticipated. The cost of $1200 was covered, ironically, by the Vedanta Society’s first logging of trees at the Retreat. The month prior to ordering the statue, a lumber company had evaluated the income from timber in “tract #1” as $1000, payable in cash. Later that summer, timber worth $6,500 was sold to the lumber company and from those proceeds, a steel water tower was built on Temple Hill, a thousand feet of water pipe laid, and a toilet and bath installed at the ladies’ cottage.
The Annual Report from 1951 reads: For the last few years, the Society has stopped passing the basket on Sunday for collections. But people leave offerings voluntarily, so much so that the Society, who[sic] had $80.00 in the treasury 19 years ago, today has more than $60,000.00 in property, (The Vedic Temple here and the Retreat property), $2,067.00 for the future Retreat Temple, and $157.00 in the general fund for current expenses.”
A year later, “The logging at the Retreat is nearly over and a road has been built on Temple Hill. Three loads of rock have been put upon the road. A wide clearing for a future gate has been made on the other side of the hill.” This new ease of access to Temple Hill made it possible for Swami Devatmananda to plant a Himalayan Cedar on Temple Hill to commemorate the Centenary Birth Anniversary of Sri Sarada Devi in December of 1952.
Within six months an architect, Mr. Skans, was engaged to draw a “modest plan.” On the 28th of July, before the onset of summer recess, Swami wanted to report whether the Society would be in a position(financially) to handle the project. Up to now, July 9th, 1953, although the blueprint was not yet finished, Swami has received a tentative bid of $11, 475, plus incidental wiring, etc.” The final bid was destined to increase to $12,864.10, which was accepted by Swami, Mr. Thom, Mr. Baird, and Mr. Skans.
Once again, “creative financing” would be utilized to get the job done. John Newman, a logger from Scappoose dug the basement of the future Retreat Temple in exchange for trees he would later remove from the property. By combining the $6,835 00 received from timber sales with the $466.76 in the Temple fund, and the addition of gifts and loans from devotees, the available amount reached $11, 846.76. The special meeting of the Board of Trustees called by Swami Devatmananda on August 2, 1943, decided that “with that amount available, the Society can have a progressive building of the Temple. The contract was signed by the Vedanta Society of Portland and countersigned in duplicate with Frank Adams, the chosen contractor. Actual work commenced immediately.
Construction of the new “Temple of the Master at the Retreat (Ashrama),” progressed rapidly, such that the roof would be in place before the winter rains began and money was exhausted. Plans were set forth to dedicate the Retreat Temple both on December 27, 1953 (Holy Mother’s Birthday), as well as on March 6, 1954 (Sri Ramakrishna’s Birthday). On the 27th of December “Swami did a little worship in the Shrine Room. After breakfast, he was driven with a group of devotees to the Retreat. There, Swami placed the picture of the Holy Mother in the Temple, which was not yet completed. But Swami did simple worship of the Holy Mother, by which the Temple was consecrated. The contractor was present and Swami invited the gathered group to offer flowers to the Mother. The day was clear although it was winter.”
In early March of 1954, the contractor (Mr. Adams) was working against the clock to finish construction. In the final push for completion, a special Board meeting was called, late in March on the 24th. Apparently, the building project was over budget, and again Mother’s “creative financing” was called into service. A resolution “authorizing the President and Secretary [of the Society] to sign a promissory note for the sum of $4,400.00 plus interest” to the contractor Frank Adams and his wife Stella Adams for the final payment on the Retreat Temple building. The note was secured on a first mortgage on the entire Retreat property! “After reading of the resolution and some discussion (in the presence of Mr. Thom, attorney) it was moved and seconded that it be adopted, and was unanimously carried.”
The bronze bust of Sri Ramakrishna, also a creation of Malvina Hoffman, was installed on the altar of the new Vedic Temple at the Retreat. The next day, Sunday, April 18, 1954, devotees again returned to the Retreat to celebrate Easter with a morning lecture on “The Meaning of Easter.”
By the first week of July 1954, Mr. Newman finished grading the land around the new Temple. Swami Prabhavananda (Hollywood, CA) and Swami Pavitrananda (New York, NY) arrived on July 28th for a week-long stay. The visit commenced with Swami Devatmananada cooking “a Hindu dinner for them, which they enjoyed very much.”
The public dedication of the Temple at Sri Ramakrishna Ashram was finally held on Sunday, August 1, 1954, in the Chapel that was filled to capacity. The three Swamis, Mr. Ralph Thom [current President of the Society], and Reverend Richard Bartlett [who spoke to devotees when Swami Devatmamanda was away in India] all participated from the dais. According to an attendee, “a buffet luncheon was served to nearly 100 people.”
The final “approximate cost of $17,000” for the founding of the first Vedic Temple in the Pacific Northwest cannot be measured in money alone. Countless devotees gave unselfishly of their time, talents, as well as funds. Perhaps even more important was the cost to Swami Devatmananda. After twenty-two years of service, in March of 1954, the Board resolved to have the “Secretary write a letter to the head of the Order in India, requesting that a Swami be sent here to assist our Swami until he recovers from his illness.” Yet the September Board minutes inform us, “Swami Devatmananda reported that he had been advised by his brother Swamis of the west coast centers, not to accept an assistant.” Swami Devatmananda left Portland On December 11, 1954, never to return. Two days before his departure he informed the Portland devotees that “he had received a letter from Swami Prabhavananda of Hollywood, offering to send his assistant, Swami Aseshananda, to take over the work here…” Unknown to all at that time, Swami Aseshananda would continue to push the Sri Ramakrishna Ashrama to new spiritual goals in the face of continued legal and fiscal obstacles.